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USA Roster Evaluation: Deutschland Cup

The Deutschland Cup, as its name would suggest, is a tournament held in Germany and hosted by the German Ice Hockey Federation. Held in early November, the four-team tournament features the second tier of European hockey nations (Germany, Slovakia, and Switzerland), and a team of North American professionals playing in Europe––Americans in odd-numbered years, Canadians in even-numbered years.

The US won the tournament in 2013, with 2015 IIHF World Championship bronze medalists Steve Moses and Dan Sexton playing big roles. Canada did not have nearly as much luck last year, finishing fourth, with Micki DuPont and Bud Holloway as the only two players who would also play for Canada less than two months later at the Spengler Cup.

John Tortorella was originally supposed to coach this team as preparation for the World Cup of Hockey, but his hiring by the Columbus Blue Jackets prevented what would have been an awesome chance to see how he and top 2016 prospect Auston Matthews would get along. A replacement coach has not been named, but I’d have to guess Craig Johnson, the assistant for this tournament, is bumped up to the head job.

The US just announced their roster, about two weeks before the tournament begins in Augsburg. Here is what the roster looks like:

Goaltenders

Cal Heeter, Hamburg Freezers (DEL): In 2013, Heeter impressed USA Hockey scouts enough in his first professional season with the AHL’s Adirondack Phantoms to be named to the bronze medal-winning IIHF World Championship roster (although he didn’t play). In 2014, the 6’4″ Heeter was called up from the Phantoms to the Philadelphia Flyers to play in the final game of the regular season, losing to Carolina 6-5 in a shootout of what is so far the 27-year-old’s only NHL appearance. 18 months later, the St. Louis native struggled to find playing time with KHL Medveščak Zagreb and joined German side Hamburg Freezers, where he should see a lot of starts with Sébastien Caron out with an injury. I’d expect Heeter to be the backup for the Americans at this tournament.

Ryan Zapolski, Lukko (Liiga): Zapolski had a dominant year three seasons ago with the South Carolina Stingrays in the ECHL, winning the league’s Rookie of the Year, Goaltender of the Year, and Most Valuable awards. But there aren’t many spots open for you in the NHL if you’re a goaltender who is only 6 feet tall, so he packed his bags and headed for Finland. Zapolski, a 28-year-old from Erie, Pa. who was the starter at this tournament two years ago, has been pretty good through his third season with Lukko, and is off to a great start this year, with a .954 save percentage in sixteen games. Zapolski is expected to start two of thre three games for Team USA, just like in 2013.

Defensemen

Mike Brennan, Vaasan Sport (Liiga): A long time ago, Brennan captained Boston College to an NCAA title. Once he turned pro, Brennan made his living on his fists, amassing over 100 penalty minutes in three consecutive AHL seasons, although he hasn’t played a single game in the NHL. After no AHL team wanted him, the right-shot from Smithtown, N.Y. went to Germany’s Iserlohn Roosters, and then Finland’s Vaasan Sport, in more of a defensive defenseman role than an agitating one. The 29-year-old has not played for Team USA since the 2004 IIHF Under-18 Championship.

Chad Billins, Linköpings HC (SHL): If you’re really into NHL prospects, you may know who Billins is. An All-Star in each of his two AHL seasons, Billins won a Calder Cup with the Grand Rapids Griffins in 2013, scoring 14 points in the playoffs. In 2014, Billins received two call-ups to the Calgary Flames: one (two games) after an injury to Mark Giordano, and another at the end of the year when the Flames realized they weren’t going to make the playoffs anyway. At 5’10”, the left-shot realized his skills were probably best-suited in Europe, so he signed in the KHL before joining the Swedish Hockey League halfway through the 2014-15 season. This is Billins’s first time representing his country.

Sam Lofquist, SaiPa (Liiga): Lofquist has spent nearly all of his professional career in Europe, and joined SaiPa in 2014-15 after three years in the Swedish second-tier Allsvenskan. A physical but high-scoring defenseman from Somerset, Wis., Lofquist is a point-per-game player through fourteen Liiga contests, and is already halfway to last year’s point total despite having played 45 fewer games. The chances of Lofquist keeping up his production at this pace are small, but the 25-year-old right-shot has earned this spot on his first Team USA entry since the 2008 IIHF Under-18 Championship.

Brian Connelly, EC Red Bull Salzburg (EBEL): Once upon a time, Connelly was a very productive AHL defenseman, with two All-Star appearances and a 52-point season. But of course there’s the size issue (5’11”) and the defensive prowess of the NHL team that first signed him (Chicago Blackhawks), so the left-hander from Bloomington, Minn. chose to go overseas in the summer of 2014. Connelly first landed with Sweden’s Leksands IF, where he struggled mightily. Now, with an American-friendly organization in Austria, he is back to his old self in terms of offensive ability from the back end. At 29 years of age, this is Connelly’s first time wearing the stars and stripes.

Cade Fairchild, Metallurg Novokuznetsk (KHL): You’ll notice that size issues on  the smaller North American ice are a pattern on this roster, as they are of Americans playing in Europe. Fairchild, of Duluth, Minn., was on USA Hockey’s radar from a young age, having played at two IIHF Under-18 Championships and two World Junior Championships in a four-year span. He signed with the St. Louis Blues after four years of college and played five NHL games during the 2011-12 season on four separate call-ups. But a 5’10” defenseman is a 5’10” defenseman, and Fairchild soon found himself in the KHL. Now in his second season in Russia, the 26-year-old lefty can be our power play quarterback in Augsburg.

Matt Gilroy, HC Spartak Moscow (KHL): I have always liked Gilroy, dating back to his time in college. In his senior year at Boston University, Gilroy won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player, and capped his career with a national championship. He also had a productive enough rookie season with the New York Rangers to be named to Team USA at the 2010 IIHF World Championship. But the Long Islander’s lack of physicality and defensive ability soon became telling, and when Gilroy couldn’t find an NHL job, he became an All-Star with Atlant Moscow Oblast. Now 31, Gilroy is a key contributor to a revitalized HC Spartak Moscow blue line. My money would be on the right-handed shot captaining this team.

Blake Kessel, Ilves (Liiga): Kessel is more known for who he isn’t than what he is. Notably, his sister Amanda was one of the best hockey players in the world before her concussions, and his brother Phil is one of the best goal scorers in the NHL. You might have heard of them. Blake is a pretty good right-handed offensive defenseman, but he has never played in the NHL. He spent most of the past three seasons in the ECHL before joining Ilves in February of 2015, where the 26-year-old is taking on more of a shutdown role. Kessel last played for the United States at the 209 World Junior Championship.

Forwards

Tim Stapleton, EHC Biel (NLA): Stapleton, a 5’9″ left winger from La Grange, Ill., knows the ins and outs of professional hockey more than perhaps anyone on this roster. Since graduating from college in 2006, the 33-year-old has played in Finland, the KHL, the AHL and 114 NHL games (all with the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise) before joining NLA this season. Stapleton also has a boatload of international experience, playing in three IIHF World Championships and two previous Deutschland Cups. The elder statesman of the team, Stapleton has a good shot at the captaincy.

Ryan Stoa, Metallurg Novokuznetsk (KHL): Stoa is a big, powerful center who has started strong in his second KHL season, with 17 points in 24 games, tops among Americans in the league (this noting Brandon Bochenski will likely play for Kazakhstan from now on). Before moving to Russia, Stoa played five years in North American professional leagues, mostly in the AHL, although he has 41 games of NHL experience with the Colorado Avalanche and Washington Capitals. American fans should expect a big performance out of the 28-year-old from Bloomington, Minn. as he attempts to get back to North America.

Broc Little, Linköpings HC (SHL): Since his high school days, Little has been known as a player who can find every goal-scoring opportunity imaginable. In his first professional season, the 5’9″ left winger led the Swedish second-tier Allsvenskan in both goals and points, and led the SHL with 28 goals this past year, his first back in Sweden after trying his hand at the North American game. In his second year with Linköpings HC, Little, 27 years old, has eight goals in fifteen games. He played at this tournament four years ago, fresh out of college. Now, Little will be asked to carry the goal-scorer’s role that he’s used to.

Ben Hanowski, Augsburger Panther (DEL): Hanowski’s claim to fame is that he was once traded from the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Calgary Flames for Jarome Iginla, and played sixteen games for Calgary after a great college career. But with the likes of Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan establishing themselves on the Flames, Hanowski (Little Falls, Minn.) soon found himself out of a job in Calgary. At 25, there’s still time for the right winger to get back to the NHL, so Hanowski signed in Germany, where he has ten points in twelve games. The team’s second-youngest player is playing for the US for the first time in his career.

Bobby Butler, Modo Hockey (SHL): This was a name I was surprised to see on the roster, since I had no idea Butler had left North America. A three-time AHL All-Star right winger from Marlborough, Mass., Butler has 133 games of NHL experience and won a bronze medal with the United States at the 2013 IIHF World Championship. After a season in which Butler finished with 59 points in 68 games with the San Antonio Rampage (good for the top 20 in the AHL in points), the 28-year-old moved to Modo Hockey, a franchise well-known in the past for being entirely composed of Swedish players.

Auston Matthews, ZSC Lions (NLA): If you’re interested in this tournament at all, regardless of your nationality, this is the guy you want to see. I’m not going to go through his whole backstory, since I’ve done that in many other settings, but if you don’t know this name, you most certainly will. A center out of Scottsdale, Ariz., Matthews joined ZSC Lions after two dominant years with the US National Team Development Program, capping it off by being named USA Hockey’s Player of the Year. The transition to pro hockey has not been hard for Matthews, as he has seventeen points in fourteen NLA games. Did I mention that he’s 18? Swiss fans better enjoy Matthews while he lasts, since he is going straight to the NHL next season. UPDATE: Matthews suffered a back injury and will miss the tournament. He will be replaced by Steven Zalewski of Straubing Tigers (DEL).

Casey Wellman, HC Spartak Moscow (KHL): As you may have noticed, there are a number of players on this roster who were in North America last year and are trying to either make a return to the NHL or create a new identity for their careers. Wellman is one of those players. A 28-year-old center who calls Brentwood, Calif. home, Wellman joined HC Spartak Moscow, who just rejoined the KHL after taking the year off due to bankruptcy. He has 54 NHL games under his belt, and spent most of the last three years with the AHL’s Hershey Bears. Wellman has never played for the United States before.

Travis Turnbull, Düsseldorfer EG (DEL): Although Turnbull’s NHL career ended after just three games, he has made a name for himself in Germany, entering his fourth year in the DEL. Turnbull has always been known as a grinder, but the switch to the larger ice surface has enabled Turnbull to take on a two-way role, with three consecutive seasons of 35 of more points (as well as spending less and less time in the sin bin). He is 29 and his NHL career is more than likely over, but he would make a good fourth-line center on this team. A dual US-Canadian citizen, Turnbull has never played in international competition.

Jim Slater, Genève-Servette HC (NLA): If not for that Matthews guy, Slater would be the most recognizable name on the roster. He played 592 games over ten years for the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets, and it’s kind of hard to imagine the organization without him as their third-line center. But Slater, a native of Lapeer, Mich., has never been the most offensively-gifted player, and the Jets want to contend in the West, so they didn’t re-sign him. Slater, 32, signed a two-year deal with Genève-Servette HC, and will probably retire soon after his contract expires. Until then, watch four Slater play for Team USA for the fourth time––he previously skated at the 2002 World Junior Championship and two IIHF World Championships.

Cole Gunner, EHC Klostersee (Oberliga): Gunner is the lone player on the team not playing in a top-tier league (Oberliga is actually Germany’s third division), but in no way does that mean he is a lesser player. Gunner is in his first year as a professional hockey player after four years at the United States Air Force Academy (isn’t Gunner a great name for the Air Force?), where he led the Falcons in scoring in his junior and senior seasons. I don’t know why Gunner wasn’t able to find a spot on at least an SPHL roster, but the 5’9″ 25-year-old from Richfield, Minn seems to have made the right decision by joining Oberliga, with ten points in nine games thus far. He has no previous national team experience. UPDATE: Gunner suffered an undisclosed injury and will miss the tournament. He will be replaced by Drew LeBlanc of Augsburger Panther (DEL).

Chad Kolarik, Kloten Flyers (NLA): While we’re still in the nascent era of fancy stats, size matters in the NHL, and you have to be a potential franchise player to even have a top-six role if you’re under six feet. Kolarik, a 5’11” right winger from Abington, Pa., impressed NHL general managers enough to get six games in with the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers, but he took his talents across the Atlantic when he realized he wouldn’t crack an NHL roster. The 2013-14 Swedish Hockey League goals leader joined NLA this year and has fifteen points in sixteen games. At 29, Kolarik is playing in his second Deutschland Cup, and also played for the US in 2004 at the IIHF Under-18 Championship. UPDATE: Kolarik suffered a shoulder injury and will miss the tournament. He will be replaced by Adam Burish of Växjö Lakers (SHL).

Terry Broadhurst, Skellefteå AIK (SHL): In the North American professional game, Broadhurst was a right-winger on a checking line, although he was probably too small for that type of role. Tired of AHL contracts, Broadhurst, 26, decided Sweden was a viable destination and signed with Skellefteå AIK over the summer. Broadhurst, out of Orland Park, Ill., earned a spot on the American roster (his first time playing for us) by being able to score in limited action on the fourth line. But in Augsburg, Broadhurst will more than likely be given strict defensive assignmets, and anything else is just a bonus.